TEXT MATTERS: PREDICTABLE vs. DECODABLE TEXTS by Prisca Martens

For retrospective miscue.com

Brian Cambourne’s recent post explores the “pedagogical confusion” in reading education due to a lack of understanding of the learning process as well as the reading process. One of the powerful aspects of miscue analysis is the window it provides to observe and analyze the reading process “in action”. By studying reading through this window, miscue observers gain insights into the reading process, learn how efficiently and effectively readers integrate language systems reading strategies to construct meaning, and evaluate reading materials for how well they support readers and reading instruction.

Materials used for reading are critical. In miscue analysis we use complete authentic texts, not parts of texts or contrived texts. Miscue analysis research shows that all texts are not “equal” for all readers. The predictability of texts for readers matters. Predictability is a concept that grows out of a socio-psycholinguistic view of reading. While all authentic language is predictable to some extent, predictability for readers depends what readers know about language and the world in relation to the content of the text and their familiarity with the syntactic structures, concepts, wordings, vocabulary, and organizational structure of text. What is predictable for one reader, such as books on chemistry or engineering, may not be predictable for another reader.

Decodable texts are inauthentic texts and popular in some reading programs. These texts are based on the word recognition theory of reading. Readers are considered proficient when they identify words fluently and effortlessly. Decodable texts are distinguishable from other texts by the high degree of phonic regularity in the texts and the match between the letter-sound relationships in the text and those that have been taught.

Miscue studies document that while students can read decodable texts, they “look” and “sound” different due to the features of these texts. As an example, 6-year-old Lydia read one of each type of text for me.  First she read the predictable book titled I Love Mud and Mud Loves Me (Stephens, 1994). In this story, Mom asks, “Sam, why are you all muddy?” [followed by “why are there worms in your pocket”, paint on your arms, jam on your face, etc.].  Each time Sam replies, “Sorry, Mom, but I love mud [worms, paint, etc.] and [mud] loves me.” While Lydia had some pauses for less familiar vocabulary, she read the book relatively efficiently and effectively, supported by picture clues and patterned language. She also had a strong retelling.

Then Lydia read Pat and Sam, a decodable text produced by Open Court (1995). In this story, Pat leaves her cat Sam home to take a nap when she goes out but instead of napping, Sam gets into mischief. The text emphasizes the short <a> and <e> sounds in short sentences, such as “Sam taps a pan,” “Sam bats a pack of ten pens,” and “Sam sets off for the mat.” Lydia read this text slowly and haltingly and had more miscues, but retold the story well.

Lydia read and comprehended both texts. Both texts were “readable”. Just because decodable texts are “readable”, though, does that mean we should have students read them?  Miscue analyses of Lydia’s readings revealed that the decodable text did not facilitate her reading as the predictable text did, due to compromises the writer/publisher necessarily made to produce readable texts whose purpose was to teach skills, rather than support meaning construction. Should Lydia and students like her spend time with decodable texts just because those texts can be read? Or, should we immerse students in rich authentic texts that by nature are predictable and thus support students in integrating language systems and reading strategies to read more effectively and efficiently and construct meaning?

Prisca Martens

The Essential RMA:  http://www.retrospectivemiscue.com

Richard C. Owen: http://www.rcowen.com

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priscamartens

Prisca is a Professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Towson University where she teaches courses in reading, literacy, and children's literature.

2 thoughts on “TEXT MATTERS: PREDICTABLE vs. DECODABLE TEXTS by Prisca Martens”

  1. This morning I read a quote by John Dewey that in essence stated teachers must understand the knowledge and power they have over the education system as a whole. He used several similes to drive home the point that we are not mindless parts of a system; rather, a good public education system is reliant upon teachers to be critical examiners of not only the basics, but the system as a whole. Decoding parts of texts, or whole texts that lack predictability, as well as rich use of language, is a prime example of where the basics of our system (reading instruction) and the entire system (No Child Left Behind, Value Added Measurement, Common Core Standards and Annual Professional Performance Appraisals) have gone in directions that teachers know are incongruous with learning. Yet, the level of opposition to these atrocities is barely above a whisper.

    Why?

    Our current system is managed by state and national teachers’ unions that are politically and financially connected with the very people responsible for its demise. Without union protection, the majority of teachers work for administrations that are pushing test prep, the use of Running Record to “catch children making errors when they read” and systematic, programmed curriculums that do not recognize the needs of individual learners in a classroom. They choose this out of fear of lost funding from state and federal governments.

    Using Corpus Linguistics this week to look at miscues my readers are making was a mind-bending experience. I learned there is a strong possibility that the miscues readers make are profoundly influenced by the large bodies of language they have been exposed to, and carry with them. This provides me with only more evidence that children need a rich and varied language experience at school. I have always known, based upon my own experiences, that students become more efficient readers through authentic literacy practices in the classroom. But the problem Prisca Martens identifies is that what we know and what we do are two different things. The powers that rule the system are teaching reading for test-taking, whereas teachers who have the freedom I have are teaching reading for meaning-making. The question I have is how do we return the power in public education to the people who know education best – the teachers in the classroom?

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  2. I found this to be an “authentic read.” In my elementary education class with Alan Flurkey, we discuss how the reason for reading should be mainly for comprehensive purposes, to read for meaning. I feel as though this article justifies this notion and is very well written!

    Like

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